Several years ago I wrote a post entitled “Stress, pain and surrendering all to God” where I argued that stewardship—not surrender—offers the best model for Christians when facing difficulties.
This post also addresses “surrendering” but from a different angle.
Specifically, I want to address what I will call “surrendering as perpetuating the problem,” such as where I fail to understand that I am the source of my own problems. In such cases “surrendering” these problems to God means relinquishing the associated anxiety, doubt and pain—the very emotions that should compel me to toward self-investigation. Surrendering thus obfuscates the issue and so, because I cannot take responsibility / ownership of something I “give over” to someone else, surrendering this type of problem actually perpetuates it.
Here’s an example:
Suppose that, as a Christian, I frequently find myself stressed and anxious relative to my ministry commitments. I hold down a job and have a family, yet my love for God motivates me to help other Christians know God better and introduce non-Christians to Jesus. How to balance all this?
It’s easy to imagine that I often ask God to “help me be less anxious about my ministry by helping me know what to say (and how best to respond to people) in order to be loving and yet effective.” I might also ask for “help to know how to balance the needs of job and work at the times when my ministry obviously is the priority.”
Given my packed schedule my unreliable car is a big problem.
So I ask for prayer a lot for my car, because without it I would have to drop some key ministries. Yet my car problems continue and my mechanic seems sketchy, but I’m too stressed (and I don’t have time) to find another mechanic. So maybe I conclude that God is teaching me that “people will treat my poorly for Christ’s sake” and so I just need to trust God all the more.
And then I try to “surrender” my stress and anxiety to God.
Yet in reality, the issue is that I’m actually a workaholic who packs his schedule so full of activities for God because I’m trying to win God’s approval. This is because I was starved of approval by my parents, broken people who were openly disapproving of everything that I did.
My car causes me stress because I don’t take the time a normal person would take to find a new car, a new mechanic, or both. And to losing her confidence when I prioritize my ministries to my family and my work, my wife who “is a constant support in my ministry” is actually so desperately lonely and overloaded without me that I’m in jeopardy of losing my marriage, if only I could see it.
The point is this:
Rather than focusing on doing “this” or “that” better—such as dealing with a problematic car or an untrustworthy mechanic—it is more a matter of knowing myself more truly: developing the self-awareness needed to identify and deal with the actual source of the problems. Especially if that source is me!
Thus my need is not to surrender my anxiety but to understand it, and so to determine if it is actually a symptom of (and thus a pointer toward) the real problem: my perfectionism, or low sense of self worth, or workaholism, etc.
Next, I need to recognize that what I took to be faith issues are actually psychological issues, and so seek to address them through psychological means rather than misinterpreting them as failing rightly to live the Christian life (with the related risk of improperly addressing my anxiety by eliminating it, because I have erroneously applied a theological solution to a psychological issue).
In such cases it is not “surrender to God” but engagement with relevant professionals (psychologists, counsellors, etc.) that will resolve the issue.
Does this involve my effort by way of openness, commitment, and honest reflection? Certainly. Does this involve God’s effort by way of (amongst other things) facilitating the process, empowering my choice-making in the face of fear, offering possibilities for changed behaviour and application of new self-understandings, etc.?
Surely it does.
Yet in such cases “surrendering all” of my anxiety, doubt and fear to God simply occludes (and so ultimately exacerbates) the very problem to which symptoms such as anxiety, doubt and fear are meant to alert me!
So in addition to my previous post arguing for stewardship in preference to surrendering, the logical conclusion here is that situations that prompt negative emotions (such as anxiety, doubt, and fear) are actually a call to increased self-awareness. Taking this post and the previous post into consideration, I argue that Christians refigure surrender as “stewardship of oneself as openness toward God for the possibility of better (self-)understanding, through a variety of information sources.”1
Such sources would include—in a variety of orders, depending on the situation and its context—science, experience, the Bible, Christian scholarship, rationality, one’s community, imagination, human senses, historical data, vision, etc.